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Spare the Babies From ‘Teletubbies’ and Toy Tie-In Marketing

Susan E. Linn and Alvin F. Poussaint are directors of the media center at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston

The recent deal between Microsoft, Ragdoll Productions and itsy bitsy Entertainment Co. to develop interactive toys based on the hit television series, “Teletubbies,” highlights our concerns about the unsettling alliance between children’s television and merchandising. Ragdoll Productions and itsy bitsy Entertainment are the creators and distributors of “Teletubbies,” which airs on PBS, the nation’s federally supported public broadcasting service. PBS imported the program from Britain last spring, embarking on an aggressive, controversial campaign to market the program as educational for children as young as 12 months.

Featuring a band of huggable, babbling space tots, “Teletubbies” has the distinction of being the first program ever designed to capture an audience of babies. PBS promotes the series as “created for children as young as 1.”

But a lack of substantive research on what babies learn from “Teletubbies” makes its presence on public television troubling. PBS serves as a beacon to parents making decisions about television and their growing children. When the federal government, through PBS, pioneers programming like “Teletubbies,” it is sending parents a strong message that watching television is good for babies. Lacking supporting research, this message is potentially damaging to millions of children.

Recently, the American Pediatric Assn. issued a strong statement urging parents to keep children under 2 from watching any television. Citing early brain research and the importance of the first three years of life for emotional, social and cognitive development, the association called for research to determine exactly what effect programs like “Teletubbies” might have on the very young.

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We already know that too much television can be harmful for children. Watching television can be habituating, and studies show that excessive viewing is linked to poor school performance and childhood obesity. Yet, American children watch an average of four hours of television a day and are subjected to about 20,000 commercials a year. Fifty-four percent have a TV set in their rooms.

One of the most difficult tasks today’s parents face is to moderate the time their children spend in front of the tube. Struggles with children over limiting television viewing and the consumerism it fosters are probably inevitable. But they don’t have to begin in babyhood.

Why then would PBS promote a program that encourages 1-year-olds to watch television? Part of the answer is the economics of survival in a society increasingly driven by the bottom line. “Teletubbies” sells merchandise. When the show began airing in the United States, Teletubbies were already the hottest selling toys in Britain. Sales are booming here as well. Toy industry watchers predict that “Teletubbies” merchandise could generate up to $2 billion worth of sales within a year.

The “Teletubbies” track record for selling merchandise, coupled with its unproved educational value, has led countries such as Norway to refuse to air the show. Last March, at an international children’s television conference in London, Ada Haug, Norway’s head of preschool programming, called “Teletubbies” the most market-oriented children’s program she had ever seen.

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By severely underfunding public television, the U.S. government has left PBS as vulnerable to market forces as any commercial station. “Teletubbies” provides PBS with an undisclosed share of the profits from merchandise sales. Most PBS children’s programs are funded, at least in part, by product licensing. Decisions about what programs get on the air are unfortunately shaped, more and more, by their commercial potential.

Proponents of “Teletubbies” point to how much babies like viewing the show. That babies enjoy something does not mean it is good for them. The argument that babies are already watching television and that “Teletubbies” was created especially for them is also flawed. Would the government encourage 12-month-olds to eat snacks with no proved nutritional value even if they were created especially to appeal to this age group? Of course not.

Twelve-month-olds don’t have to be imprinted with “Teletubbies” or any other television icon. If babies are not exposed to television, they won’t miss it or the images it popularizes. The first few years of life are precious. This is the only time that children can be easily protected from the barrage of media advertising. It is a period when parents can be free from pressures to buy their children the things that television--even public television--sells.

Protecting our youngest, most vulnerable children from being seduced by tie-in toy marketing is as simple as flicking a switch.


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